"You know what the problem is? I mean, you know what the real problem is?"
"Fuck you, you don't know." She glares over the coffee table at me, and I give her a sexy wink. She flips me the bird. "The problem is that I'm damaged goods, and guys can smell that. I've got like this, this broken heart, and I don't know, it must exude some hormone or something. It attracts sharks who are hoping for the rebound, and scares normal guys away."
"Yeah, I bet that's it exactly." I drain my glass and lean forward to refill it. With my other hand, I make a wanking motion, indicating with exceptional class that I think her theory is bullshit.
"Hey, slow down there, champ. That right there is quality vodka, it isn't that gutter sludge you're used to dumping on your liver."
"Rules is rules, sistah. I have to come over and listen to you piss and moan about dudes, I get to drink all the fancy hooch I can swallow."
"Well at least fill my glass, too, then."
"Nope, I think you've had enough."
"You ass. Pour my drink and shut your lousy chat-hole."
My drink's simple: I throw in a couple of ice cubes and then dump vodka until the glass is full. Hers, though, has to be more complicated. Poured into the expensive, vacuum insulated shaker, the sliced fruits and vegetable garnishes, the whole nine yards. She has all the stuff handy, a miniature bar kit on the coffee table. I make her drink without much thought--I've been mixing her drinks for years--and pass her glass over to her.
Her apartment is the exact opposite of mine: expensive, ordered, clean, upscale. All of her stuff is crazy glamour. It's the stuff you see in magazines and in TV shows about people who are in magazines. It's the stuff that most normal people don't even know about. Glasses hand-blown by some guy I've never heard of, olives imported from a company that only the in-crowd can contact.
She reached for the stars, and when she got 'em, she reached for whatever was next. By most standards, she's an incredible success.
But I grew up with her, and I remember when she was eight years old, annoying the hell out of me with stories of princes and knights in shining armor and true love.
She gave up on the idea of being saved around junior high, when Jeremy Lewis told everyone she let him finger her. That was when she realized it would be a much better idea to save herself. But she's always been a sucker for true love. So even though she owns an apartment that overlooks the entire city, she feels like it's not enough. Even though she rubs elbows with every celebrity in the world, she feels alone. Even though she has it all, she still feels like she has nothing.
And maybe she's right.
What the hell do I know?
"Okay, smart guy, what do you think the problem is?"
"You're picker's broken, plain and simple."
"What's a picker?"
"Just like it sounds."
"What it sounds like is slang for a bug's dick. So explain."
"Seriously? A bug's dick? The hell's wrong with you? A picker is that thing inside you that tells you when someone's worth dealing with. Take Ron, for example."
"Can we not talk about Ron?"
"You brought this shit up, you played dumb when I mentioned a picker, so now you shut up and listen."
She rolls her eyes and takes a deep gulp of her drink. Not at all like the classy sips she'd usually take, but there's nobody here to judge, and she's had a pretty rough week.
"Fine," she says, "Go ahead."
"See, when I met Ron, the first thing I thought was that he was a super-douche with the smile of a sewer weasel and about as much charm as a pile of shit covered in dead cockroaches."
"Sewer weasel? That's not even a real thing."
"Of course it is. They're marsupials. So I meet Ron, and I am definitely less than impressed. You meet him, and God knows what you're thinking, but you immediately drop your panties and give him access to your home and your money."
"It wasn't immediately. We dated for three months before I gave him a key."
"Yeah, but you were already giving him money by the second date. Point being, you trusted the guy, and he swiped a bunch of your shit, cheated on you, and spent a pile of your cash."
"So Ronny was a dirtbag. Everyone makes bad calls sometimes."
"Yes, but you do it consistently. You have never picked a decent guy, do you realize that?"
"Yes I have."
"Who? Name one, I dare you."
"Okay, A, I'm not a decent guy. I'm a pretty vile human being, as a matter of fact. And B, we're talking about guys you've dated, and you know it. Face it, lady, you got a broken picker."
"Quit calling it that. It sounds all dirty when you say it."
"It's kinda supposed to."
"I know--that's why I said stop."
I smile my prize-winning smile and she flips me the bird again. She smiles as she does it, and hers is prize-winning, too, although she doesn't mean for it to be. Hell, she probably doesn't even know it. Poor bastard, with her self-confidence issues. They worked for her so well in the earlier part of her life: if she hadn't been trying so hard to prove something, she never would have made it to this apex of success.
But now that she's here, they only work against her. She dates assholes who are always bringing her down, treating her like shit. She surrounds herself with condescending pricks who are always looking for the perfect angle to stab her in the back. Everyone in her life wants her to fail, if only so they can have a story to tell at the next party, and this is what she considers normal.
I'm the only real person in her life, and even to me, that seems pathetic.
I take another drink from a glass that costs more than I make in a month. "And you know what else?"
"Enlighten me," she says.
"That thing inside that tells you when you've made it? Your that thing is broken, too. I mean, look around, kid--you're here. You made it. Whatever happens next, it doesn't even matter."
She shakes her head and looks all serious. "Whatever happens next always matters. This is all an illusion of success, my friend." She waves her hand around, encompassing what? The room? The apartment? The world? I don't even know.
"I slip up, this is all gone, nothing more than a hazy memory, and I'm back in the shitpipes, serving chicken-fried steak to fat-ass truckers."
"Do your fancy friends know you use phrases like 'shitpipes?'"
"They aren't my friends."
"At least you're smart enough to realize that," I tell her. She polishes off her drink and I begin mixing her another. I pour it into her glass, and I realize that I've fallen back into the old habit.
I was a bartender for a while, serving high-end folks high-price cocktails. Serving her friends. Serving her, actually. Talk about awkward. She pretended not to know me, and I kept my eyes friendly but averted, just like you're supposed to do when you serve the elite, and later on, when she called me up with tears in her voice, I told her to forget about it, even though I knew she wouldn't.
And she promised me that she wouldn't do that again, that next time, she'd introduce me to everyone, she didn't care if they knew she was friends with a bartender. I told her not to be stupid, and I quit my job, because I know her too well.
But I was damn good at serving booze to the wealthy. I could pour drinks with this...carefulness. Give the impression that even the poison they pour down their throats is prized. Anyway...
I glance up and see that she's watching, see that's she's noticed. I smile and shrug. "Must be the classy stemware, draws me back into servant mode."
She blushes. I'll spend hours talking to this woman about bangin' some barista chick in the bathroom, but the moment I bring up working for a living, she gets embarrassed. Maybe I'm being a little too harsh.
I mean, she felt terrible about the bar thing. We've always been true to each other, so she's got some Peter/Jesus refusal issue with the time she had to deny me. I don't give a fuck--it's just how this city works--but I can never convince her of it.
I slide her drink across the table, pour myself another couple fingers, and drop in a couple of cubes.
"So let me ask you something," I say.
"Do I have a choice?"
"Is it worth it?"
"Is what worth it?" she asks, even though she knows exactly what I'm talking about. Buying herself some time to think about the answer. It's a trick they do: re-ask the question, act like it isn't clear enough, and they're already thinking about the answer. You clarify, and they answer. Makes them look like they answer straight-out without having to think about it.
It's all a power game in this city, and habits are hard to break, even when you're hanging with friends.
Which is why I take a drink before I answer. I do it without even thinking about it, giving her more time to think, while I drink, while I specify the question, giving her moment after moment to come up with the right answer. Not on purpose, but like I said--habits are hard to break.
I don't always fall into this behavior with her, but sometimes I do, if I'm not making a conscious effort not to.
I drink my drink, and I mimic her gesture from earlier, that all-encompassing gesture of whatever.
"This. All of it. Is it worth it, to have to live like you do, with your fake friends and your broken picker and your ulcers that you can't tell anyone about?"
"Do you think I should feel bad about living my life the way I do?"
Answer a question with a question--another thing they do. Damn, she must really need to ponder this one.
"You know that's not what I'm saying," I tell her. "I just asked a question. You need to quit fucking around and answer it. Or shut up for a second and think about it."
She laughs and takes a drink. "I just...I'm trying to think of a way to say this without coming off as a complete bitch. I don't want to hurt your feelings."
"Well, I already know you're a complete bitch, and if we start worrying about each other's feelings now, we'll never have another decent conversation again."
She nods, takes another drink. "I...I don't want to live like you. Does that sound awful?"
"Hell, darlin', I don't wanna live like me."
"I busted my ass, I really did. And I sold out. I told myself I wouldn't. That I would make it without sacrificing my morals or beliefs or whatever you want to call them."
"I'm here to help."
"And when I realized that that wasn't going to work, I scrapped my principles, my morals. Because I didn't want to fail. I didn't want to come all the way out here and have success within my reach and then miss it because of some belief system I didn't really even have faith in."
I nod wisely. "Yes. I see. So...you gonna answer the fucking question before I drink my way into a coma?"
She sighs, flips me the bird again, and looks out the window. It's a dramatic series of events, but not soap-opera dramatic. She's playing it well, and I wonder if it's for my benefit or if it's another one of those hard-to-break habits. I decide that she isn't doing it on purpose, because if she was, she'd walk to the window and stare out at the city.
When she looks back at me, there are tears in her eyes, and I feel like a shithead for my cynical thoughts. I stand up, meaning to walk to her, maybe hug her or something.
She's my best friend, and my first impulse is to soothe away the hurt.
"Grab some wood there, bub," she says.
I sit back down.
"Is it worth it? Probably not. I fake everything all the time. I can't afford to slip, I can't afford to walk out without make-up or laugh at an off-color joke in a restaurant. I'm sitting here drinking with my best friend in the world, and I'm so fake that he can only believe about half of what I say. I hate it! And you know what the worst part is?"
Seems like a rhetorical question, but she waits so long that I decide it's not.
"Yeah," I tell her. We've been friends forever. The worst part is, she wouldn't change it. If she had everything to do all over again, she'd do it exactly the same. Yep, even that time in the bar, when she had to treat me like hired help.
"Am I a bad person?" she asks. She's sobbing now, not hardcore bawling, but tears are running out of her eyes, and she's sniffing back snot.
"Don't be an idiot," I tell her.
"Come hug me, you moron!"
I bite back a laugh and step over the coffee table. I sit down on the couch next to her, take the drink out of her hand, and wrap my arms around her.
"I'm awful," she murmurs into my chest.
I look over her shoulder, out through the sliding glass door, out over the city that has beaten me down, and I stroke her hair gently, and I tell her, "No, you aren't."
I continue to soothe her, and she continues to cry. I watch the winking lights of the city, so different than the view from my apartment, so different from the basement window that looks up to the back side of a trash can in an alley.
Eventually, her sobs turn to tiny little snores, and I carry her into the bedroom.
"Don't put me down," she says as I place her onto the bed.
"Hush now," I whisper to her, "You're all right."
I kiss her on the forehead and close the door behind me as I leave the bedroom.
I clean up the coffee table, dump out the remainder of her drink, throw away the fruits and vegetables.
Before I go, I pour myself another drink, and I step outside those sliding glass doors to drink it. I glare out over the city, and I want to resent it. I want to resent her for being able to look down over it like this any time she wants.
But I don't.
Because I wouldn't do anything different, either.
I finish my drink, rinse out my glass, and leave, locking the door behind me.
Posted under Short Stories on 3/08/10